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13 Nov 2007

Any Given Sunday: Rams over Saints

by Ned Macey

Before the season, a 37-29 contest between the Rams and Saints seemed like an eminently reasonable outcome. After eight games, however, the Rams were 0-8 and the offense was inept. They had not scored an offensive touchdown in their previous four road games. The Saints, meanwhile, had rebounded from a 0-4 start with four consecutive wins by a combined score of 122-67.

Unfortunately for the Saints, their pass defense is capable of making any opponent a powerful offense. By halftime, the Rams had 17 points and were on their way to 34-7 lead that not even their own incompetent defense could give away in the fourth quarter. The Rams finally had their full complement of skill position players on the field. The Saints' inability to generate a consistent pass rush allowed the Rams to make do with their ramshackle offensive line, and Marc Bulger had a field day with the Saints' substandard secondary.

The result was extremely disappointing for the Saints, who missed a chance to climb into a tie for first place in the NFC South. At a certain point, their poor pass defense is almost too big a liability, and nothing is being done to address it. The offense has made adjustments to help them overcome some early-season struggles, but they struggled blocking the blitz in the first half and were undone by just a couple of bad plays.

St. Louis has been built around its offensive skill players for years, but those players have been supported by the great Orlando Pace. The Greatest Show on Turf from 1999 through 2001 was exceptional, but the ensuing years have seen a great deal of mediocrity. They had their first very good offense since 2001 just last season when new coach Scott Linehan emphasized the running game and ball security. This year's offense, however, is far worse than anything Rams' fans have seen since the Tony Banks era.

The difference between last year's 8-8 team and this year's 1-8 team is exclusively offensive decline. The defense and special teams roughly match last year's poor units. The enormity of the offensive decline is largely the result of unimaginable offensive injuries.

Quarterback Marc Bulger has played with broken ribs that limited his effectiveness early in the season and caused him to miss several games. All-everything running back Steven Jackson injured his knee and has missed four full games. Isaac Bruce missed two games with a hamstring injury. Drew Bennett missed two games and battled leg injuries throughout. Torry Holt has missed no games but has a knee injury that is limiting his explosiveness.

Even worse have been the injuries crippling the offensive line. The most important injury was the Week 1 injury to Pace that knocked him out for the season, but his surrounding cast has also been decimated. Guard Mark Setterstrom started the first three games before being lost to injured reserve. Guard Adam Goldberg is also on IR. Center Richie Incognito has missed five games. Brett Romberg has missed two games.

Of the five starters on opening day this season, only two were active Sunday, and none played the same position. The right side of the line featured Brandon Gorin and Nick Leckey, both of whom were picked up after the season started.

Needless to say, the resulting offensive struggles are not too surprising. The question is whether this explosion against New Orleans portends great things for the future. The Rams did have their full complement of skill players for the first time all season. As Jackson slowly regains health, they should revert to a dominant position going forward, right?

The Rams cannot possibly be worse than they were in the first eight games, but this offense still has major problems. The line was unchallenged by one of the worst pass rushes in the league. The Saints still managed to sack Bulger four times, but many of these sacks came on blitzes, and the front four got very little push. Bulger, left with time in the pocket, picked apart a very poor secondary.

Those opportunities have been few and far between for Bulger this season. Coming off a career season, he has a total of five touchdown passes and eight interceptions. He has been sacked 22 times and hit innumerable others in just seven games. These hits led to the aforementioned broken ribs that rendered him painfully unproductive in Weeks 3 and 4. He got abused by the powerful pass rush of Seattle two weeks ago. He responded to play well against Cleveland, and their poor pass rush, last week. Two weeks of solid play in a row is progress, but may be providing false hope.

The truth is that Cleveland and New Orleans both have pass defenses that go beyond bad to some other level of awfulness. New Orleans is unable to generate pressure with their front four or cover with their back seven. That somewhat ties the hands of a defensive play-caller.

The Rams attacked all portions of the field. On early downs, they would go for comeback routes to the right side on Mike McKenzie. Against the blitz, they had backs and tight ends wide-open in the flat. They found Randy McMichael several times down the middle of the field against linebackers. On third-and-long, however, they always went the same way: at former Indianapolis cornerback Jason David.

The Rams faced a number of third-and-long situations, and they converted way too many of them with throws at David. Bulger converted four of his first five third-and-7 or longer situations, and all conversions came to David's side of the field. Scott Linehan is probably kicking himself that he called for a shovel pass on a third-and-16 in the first quarter instead of testing David.

The Saints came into the game with the second worst defense in third-and-long situations in the whole league. This problem will continue to haunt the Saints, but on some weeks, it will remain hidden. The Saints will likely win easily on those weeks, and people will reassert their opinion that the Saints are Super Bowl contenders.

The reason it will hide some weeks is the nature of third downs. If the Saints make a play on any third down, the drive stalls and forces a punt or field goal attempt. The Rams scored a total of 24 points on the four drives where they made long conversions. Had the Saints made a defensive play to stop any of the third downs, the Rams would have punted.

This difference is obvious when we consider the performance of the worst team in the league in third-and-long situations before Sunday: the Rams. In a 7-7 game, the Saints faced a third-and-14 at the Rams' 37-yard line. Any sort of positive yardage would lead to a field goal, and a conversion may end up in a touchdown. Instead, the Rams brought a blitz from the outside. Will Witherspoon sacked Drew Brees, forcing a punt. The next time New Orleans crossed midfield, they faced a third-and-9 but botched the snap, resulting in a punt.

Individual plays make a tremendous difference in a football game. The Saints offense generally had its way with the Rams but made too many crucial mistakes. Brees threw two terrible interceptions to receivers who were never open. He got an intentional grounding penalty when the Rams properly diagnosed a screen pass, forcing the Saints into one of the aforementioned third-and-longs. In the second half, the Saints failed on a fourth-and-1 carry at midfield. Those four plays and the messed-up snap ended the Saints' second through sixth drives.

The Rams defense certainly played a role in all of these stops, but the Saints buckled at the least sign of pressure. The Rams defense effectively made four or five plays the whole game, and that was enough to allow their offense to pile up an insurmountable lead. The Rams defense's struggles in prevent defense made the final score closer than it should have been, or this game would have strongly resembled the Saints' first four losses. In those games, early turnovers and failures to execute set up opposing offenses to destroy the Saints' suspect pass defense.

The poor pass defense will always leave opponents with a chance to match the Saints' sometimes potent offense. Without a consistent running game, the Saints are left at the mercy of their effective but highly volatile passing attack. In sum, they feature an at-times explosive offense but are not a very good football team.

The rest of their schedule includes only one game against a team with a winning record. That team is Tampa Bay, the main competition for the NFC South crown. That game is effectively a must-win for New Orleans, because the elements of Sunday's loss strongly suggest the Rams will not be the last bad team to beat them.

St. Louis has also featured an at-times explosive offense on a not-very-good football team for years. The return of the explosive offense got them out of the winless column. The offense will appear again from time to time when they face a poor opposing pass rush. That could be as soon as next week in San Francisco. Games against Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay, all at home, could bring out actual boo-birds rather than salutes to the iconic Bruce. The Rams should pull out a couple of wins down the stretch. Given their aging offensive core, the improved play hardly brings a tinge of excitement for the future.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 13 Nov 2007

24 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2007, 12:31am by max


by Paulo Sanchotene, Brazil (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 2:22pm

Last time I checked, someone from FO Staff suggested the Holy See should decanonize Saint Louis because even him couldn't make a miracle and save Rams' season.

Next match, they beat the Saints...

by Darrel (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 2:29pm

The Saints pass defense is historically bad. They can't even get off the field on 3rd and 15 - twice!

by Matt (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 2:52pm

Since Jason David is so poor, why on earth was he signed and does the scout still have a job? What was the received wisdom regarding his ability this offseason? I seem to recall suggestions Indy would struggle without their old corners.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 2:56pm

Ouch. I'm not even a fan of either of these teams and after reading this I'm depressed. Way to give St. Louis and New Orleans' fans something to look forward to, Ned.

by Yaguar (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 2:57pm

The thing about the Rams is that they actually have some pretty decent players, like Holt, Bulger, Jackson, and Carriker. Eventually some of those guys have to do something. They aren't like the Dolphins, who have absolutely nobody, or the Niners, who have nobody outside of Frank Gore.

I think the Rams could be due for a solid rebound to 7-9 or 8-8 next year. I think the same might be true for the Jets.

by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 3:02pm

I thought the Colts would miss Harper less than David. My impression was that Harper got a lot of credit for having balls thrown at him, but got little blame for struggling with pretty much every other kind of throw. I hadn't realized David was capable of play at the level he's demonstrated. (Of course, the lack of a pass rush puts more pressure on the corners, and the weak secondary puts more pressure on the line ... New Orleans has their own personal Tacoma Narrows Bridge.)

I'm amazed that Bulger was able to play for as long as he did with broken ribs. Given the results of those games, it seems as though it would have been better to throw in veteran-backup-du-jour until Bulger was at least 90%. Even a healthy QB will struggle to win with a weak collection of weapons.

by Disco Stu (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 3:05pm

Agree with you on the Jets- they've invested heavily in the OL, Clemens looks like a keeper, Jones/Washington is an above average backfield, and Cotchery is an emerging star. Snag some defensive depth in the draft and this becomes a wild card team. Too bad they won't get to play a last place sched w Miami in their division...

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 3:22pm

If Rams' management pushes the panic button and cans Linehan this year, I'd take him as a head coach in Minnesota. I have litle doubt that he is a better judge of qb talent than Childress.

by B (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 3:37pm

8: Are you sure about that? Bulger was there when Linehan started in St. Louis, and we've already learned that Bulger's backup isn't any good. Not that it would take much to be better than Childress.

by Terry (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 3:54pm

Re: Saints Pass Rush

I know Charles Grant was out this game, but for the balance of the season, oh Will Smith, oh Charles Grant, wherefore as thou gone? Do not forsake the Saints, they cannot endure the somewhat suckiness of Reggie Bush without thee.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 3:58pm

B, Linehan did a really nice job with Culpepper in Minnesota, at a time Culpepper was struggling. Sure, there was a guy named Moss around, but there was dramatic improvement in Culepper's play after Linehan arrived, and marked decline after Linehan left. Part of my desire is that I've never been a huge fan of the West Coast offense when it isn't being manned by guys like Montana and Young; I simply prefer a more vertical passing game. Linehan did a very good job in Minnesota, and I think he did a nice job last year with the Rams. If they panic because of overwhelming injuries, I'd take Linehan in Minnesota, to work with whatever qbs are available.

by Roy (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 5:21pm

re #8 and #11, I wish Rams management would panic and fire itself.

by Bayou_Fan (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 5:35pm

And the really, really bad par about this is that Jason David is an upgrade at that position. What was there before was both slower and less intelligent at the position.

NO needs two corners, one that's ready to go now to replace David, and another that will be good to go a year later to replace McKenzie (I am predicting McKenzie starts to slow down next year). They need some new blood on the D-line that can get some pressure on the QB.

As for the Offense, we need a good running back. We have an above average QB, decent receivers, a passable line, and a wonderful slot receiver. Pierre Thomas is a good find as he has the potential to be a good back, but, Aaron Stecker is not a good replacement for a healthy Deuce McAlister. Problem is, Deuce is, from past experience, not healthy. You are lucky to get 10 games a season from him (averaging the last 80 games from the end of this regular season).

It seems that the Saints can have success if they play teams that have some combination of slow receivers, a poor outside running game, and an inability too protect a statue-like QB. But, facing a team with an average run defense, slightly above average pass rush, and good secondary play, the offense is screwed. Either way, it looks like we're back in the hunt for a high draft pick.

by Matt Saracen - QB1 - Dillon Panthers (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 6:10pm

Do you think it is an adjustment thing for David? It seems as though the Saints scheme has corners playing a different role than the Colts and maybe he is just having a bad time picking the thing up. Yeah I know after 9 games and a training camp you should be sweet, but maybe it's going to take him a year or more before he is totally comfortable in the Saints system.

As for options at corner, I'm guessing the Saints paid him a princely figure, so it might be difficult to get rid of him - so maybe persistence is the way to go. They drafted a guy called Usama Young too in the 3rd round last year - I haven't heard much said about his play this year but at least he's getting on the field a bit unlike Meachem. So they might draft another corner, there seems to be a lot of them sitting around the 2nd and 3rd round value for next year's draft and yes it's a bit sad but I've got half an eye looking at draft prospects already :(

by SoulardX (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 6:23pm

How many more wins for the Rams to hit their mean win projection? 4-5?

by Joseph (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 7:10pm

Not mentioned in the article, but the "bad Saints pass rush" got 4 sacks WHILE missing 2 starters, Charles Grant and DT Brian Young. As mentioned in this article--the 2 biggest reasons the Saints lost this game was their inability to get off the field on 3rd & long and their own negative plays on 3rd down (referenced in the article). BTW, the Rams had the bye week to get players healthy and study film on Jason David. Usama Young was inactive, and had been the nickel back in earlier weeks.


by Jeff (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 8:04pm

Can I start campaigning for a "Weakest Link " Award? Perhaps an Achilles Heel Trophy? Jason David wins my vote. Poor guy has been abused all season and seems like there's nothing he can do about it.

by max (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 8:25pm

Just to get it right...

Steven Jackson did not injure his knee, he had a torn groin.

And Richie Incognito is their RG not a Center.

Makes me wonder about the analysis when you can't get the simple details right.

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 9:08pm

13: Let Matt Forte continue to play his home games in the Dome. That would be a good start.

Actually, though, part of the problem on Sunday was the play-calling. I was screaming for Payton to go back to running the ball, but he didn't. Looking at the last season and a half, one trend in Saints' losses seems to be Payton's giving up on the run way too early in games. Like on Sunday, for example, they were going pass-pass-pass-punt when the score was still tight. And then on the fourth down call, even though they called a run, they tried a slow-developing play instead of something that would hit more quickly. Heck, give it to The Karnage, for crying out loud! Or if you're doing something that takes a little time to develop, use Bush as a decoy.

But enough on that. Credit to the Rams for showing the league the REAL way to prepare and play after the bye week.

by Brian (not verified) :: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 9:33pm

The Rams are only doing so poorly because of injuries. When they get players back it shouldn't surprise people when they put up some points.

They have so much talent at the skill positions, it shouldn't be too hard to address their weak links in the off-season.

by RickD (not verified) :: Wed, 11/14/2007 - 10:21am

re: 7
The advantage of the last-place schedule has largely disappeared since the NFL expanded to 32 teams. It used to be that the last-place team in a five-team division would get to play all the other last-place teams, including those from the other conference. That could be good for an extra four wins in some cases.

Now the difference in schedule between a last-place team and a first-place team is only two games, i.e. the Dolphins and Patriots play the same schedule except the Pats play the 1st place finishers from the AFC South and AFC West while the Dolphins play the last-place teams from the same divisions. Aside from that and the two head-to-head games, the other 12 opponents are exactly the same, the home-and-away will vary.

by Ryan VB (not verified) :: Wed, 11/14/2007 - 3:14pm

Um, Richie Incognito is a guard, and started the season at G. He has played center before, but Brett Romberg got the starting C job out of camp and Andy McCollum (now pressed into duty as a G himself) was the primary backup.

by chuangtzu (not verified) :: Wed, 11/14/2007 - 6:07pm

RE: 18, if you are going to act like a know-it-all, you'd better actually know it all.

St. Louis has, given all their injuries, played multiple offensive linemen at multiple positions. Richie Incognito is listed at various places on the Rams' NFL website as both a right guard and a center, and has played both positions.

by max (not verified) :: Fri, 11/16/2007 - 12:31am

#23 I know all about Richie Incognito. He did play Center last year for a few games because of injuries to the Rams Centers, but he finished the year as the starting RG. And he open this year as the starting RG and played no other position this year when he went out on injured reserved due to reinjuring his right knee cap. He is a Guard and anyone who know anything about the Rams knows that he is not their Center, but a powerful run blocking Guard. The Rams have 3 Centers on their team this year, Romberg, McCollum, and Fry. Anyone who goes solely by the websites is a piker.